The best books on scientific method: how science works, fails to work and pretends to work

Why am I passionate about this?

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Biology emeritus. He got his PhD at Harvard and has an honorary doctorate from the Université Charles de Gaulle, Lille 3, France. His research is on the evolution and mechanisms of learning in humans and animals, the history and philosophy of psychology and biology, and the social-policy implications of science. He's the author of over 200 research papers and five books including Adaptive Behavior and Learning, The New Behaviorism: Foundations of behavioral science, 3rd edition, Unlucky Strike: Private health and the science, law and politics of smoking, 2nd edition and Science in an age of unreason.  

I wrote...

The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science

By John Staddon,

Book cover of The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science

What is my book about?

"The New Behaviorism is quite brilliant: It is frankly the only behaviorism left standing. Staddon never fails to be thought provoking and there is a wry assurance to his written voice which makes him excellent company for the voyage he lays out." - Clive D. L. Wynne, Arizona State University, USA

"I started John Staddon's book on behaviorism at a fast clip, as befits a reader who has been a behaviorist for over 50 years. But quickly I slowed down because the gems that were offered were too rich to be passed over quickly. He knows the history of behaviorism and the many notions in other disciplines that affect its rationale. I've seen most books on the topic and this is, by far, the best of all." - Alan Silberberg, American University, USA

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

John Staddon Why did I love this book?

Richard Feynman was unique. A brilliant theoretical physicist, humorous, eccentric, and independent.

Feynman’s genius gave him a certain freedom, which he exploited to the full. The book is autobiographical and shows his often irresponsible behavior but also a relentless curiosity, and willingness to try anything, the essence of a successful scientist.

One cannot hope to imitate Feynman (and perhaps we should not: he was often mischievous, even mildly malicious); but any scientist should envy the way he approached problems in engineering as well as science—and the book is fun!

By Richard P. Feynman,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard P. Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, thrived on outrageous adventures. In this lively work that "can shatter the stereotype of the stuffy scientist" (Detroit Free Press), Feynman recounts his experiences trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets-and much more of an eyebrow-raising nature. In his stories, Feynman's life shines through in all its eccentric glory-a combustible mixture of high intelligence, unlimited curiosity, and raging chutzpah.

Included for this edition is a new introduction by Bill Gates.

Book cover of The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

John Staddon Why did I love this book?

James Watson was a clever, pushy, and critical young American molecular biologist exposed to the scientific culture of Britain in the early 1950s.

The book is full of acerbic comments about “stuffy” Cambridge dons and the rules of etiquette that young Jim struggled with, all the while scheming to maintain the various fellowships that allowed him to remain in the UK and pursue his ambition: to understand the chemical nature of the genetic material, DNA.

The book provides a lively account of his collaboration with an older Brit, the brilliant Francis Crick, who was also trying to unscramble DNA. Much of the technical stuff will be incomprehensible to most, but the method the two followed is clear. The partnership was hugely fruitful and the book is a lively account of how science actually works.

Watson and Crick tried everything while coping with competitors and their criticisms as well as their findings, which as often contradicted as supported their speculations.

In the end, of course, they won.

By James D. Watson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Double Helix as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the two discoverers of DNA recalls the lively scientific quest that led to this breakthrough, from the long hours in the lab, to the after-hours socializing, to the financial struggles that almost sank their project. Reprint. 15,000 first printing.

Book cover of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth

John Staddon Why did I love this book?

Stuart Ritchie is a cognitive psychologist, a Lecturer at the University of London’s King’s College. A few years ago, he had an experience that seems to have been the impetus for this lively and important book.

A famous social psychologist published a paper in a respected scientific journal purporting to demonstrate extra-sensory perception. The method was conventional—he tested a group of subjects and averaged the results, even though the claimed ability should have been demonstrable by individuals. Averaging across a group made no sense.

The results turned out to be unreplicable (no surprise!), but the paper (by Ritchie and others) showing so was refused publication. Houston, we have a problem! And so does science as Ritchie shows in this thoughtful, well-researched, and surprisingly readable book on a difficult but hugely important topic.

Science, and the freedom of inquiry on which it depends, is at the heart of Western civilization. Science Fictions illustrates the dark side of modern science, in contrast to the open-minded brilliance of Feynman, Watson, and Crick and their ilk. Perhaps the contrast will make us all wiser. 

By Stuart Ritchie,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Science Fictions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An insider’s view of science reveals why many scientific results cannot be relied upon – and how the system can be reformed.

Science is how we understand the world. Yet failures in peer review and mistakes in statistics have rendered a shocking number of scientific studies useless – or, worse, badly misleading. Such errors have distorted our knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as medicine, physics, nutrition, education, genetics, economics, and the search for extraterrestrial life. As Science Fictions makes clear, the current system of research funding and publication not only fails to safeguard us from blunders but actively encourages bad…

Book cover of An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

John Staddon Why did I love this book?

Experimental Medicine is a classic, a clear and simple account of physiological research, well-illustrated with comprehensible examples (no molecular biology needed).

It is well worth reading if only because so many of the principles that French physician Claude Bernard pioneered have been largely forgotten. Most important is his demand for certainty: “Science permits no exceptions,” an injunction now more often forgotten than obeyed. Bernard would have been appalled by, for example, a famous choice experiment in which 60% of a large group of subjects choose a less-profitable option.

The experimenters concluded that individual humans (not just groups) show risk aversion, ignoring the 40% who did not. In a similar situation, Bernard would always seek the conditions that yield a 100% result. He gives an example where he was able to resolve uncertainty concerning the sensitivity of spinal roots.

We’re still waiting for any serious effort to achieve a Bernardian certainty about human choice. But his book may encourage readers to make the effort.  

By Claude Bernard, H.C. Greene (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Clear and penetrating presentation of the basic principles of scientific research from the great French physiologist whose contributions in the 19th century included the discovery of vasomotor nerves; nature of curare and other poisons in human body; functions of pancreatic juice in digestion; elucidation of glycogenic function of the liver.

Book cover of Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction

John Staddon Why did I love this book?

Any list of books about science must have something about Darwin. The book to read is The OriginBut that’s obvious. I don’t need to go into it. So here is a Darwin book that is less obvious.

Most scientists will never have heard of it; it’s literary history, not science. I learned of it by accident, in a talk given by an economic historian. This is a fascinating book by a literary historian from which I learned much about Darwin. Gillian Beer recognizes that Darwin was a great writer. She traces similarities between his rhetorical style and the strategies of some other iconic Victorian writers, such as George Eliot (Middlemarch) and Samuel Butler (The way of all flesh).

She also discusses scientific writers of the era such as George Lewis and Herbert Spencer. There are many revealing long quotations. I learned much from the book, and so will you.

By Gillian Beer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwin's Plots as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gillian Beer's classic Darwin's Plots, one of the most influential works of literary criticism and cultural history of the last quarter century, is here reissued in an updated edition to coincide with the anniversary of Darwin's birth and of the publication of The Origin of Species. Its focus on how writers, including George Eliot, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hardy, responded to Darwin's discoveries and to his innovations in scientific language continues to open up new approaches to Darwin's thought and to its effects in the culture of his contemporaries. This third edition includes an important new essay that investigates Darwin's…

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Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

Book cover of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

Edward Benzel Author Of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Coming from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, I have witnessed many successes and failures over more than four decades. I recognized decades ago that communication with patients at a level that involves emotions is a necessary part of being a complete physician. This involves being empathetic and, henceforth, digging deep to find the strength to be transparent, vulnerable, compassionate, understanding, and, when needed, forceful (some would call this paternalism). Although the five books I have chosen to highlight vary widely in content, they have one common theme – finding within us the will and wherewithal to succeed.

Edward's book list on awakening of the strengths that are hidden deep inside each of us

What is my book about?

My book is a collection of monthly Editor-in-Chief letters to the readership of World Neurosurgery, a journal that I edit. Each essay is short and sweet. The letters were written for neurosurgeons but have been re-edited so that they apply to all human beings. They cover topics such as leadership, empathy, vulnerability, stress, burnout, and on and on…. These essays are relevant for all who strive to craft a better version of themselves.

Life lessons learned by the author during his 40+ year neurosurgery career are shared and translated into real-life scenarios. Between the covers are many lessons that are derived from the experiences of the author and then applied to all humans. The mastering of these lessons should translate into a sense of pride and satisfaction. In keeping with the theme of the book, this process should culminate in the feeling at the end of the day that ‘Today was, indeed, a good day.’

Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

What is this book about?

About the Book
Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon features many topics that pertain to how neurosurgeons interact with others and how each of us can use introspection to modify how we are using tools and strategies such as empathy, respect, stress management, and much more.
This book provides some insights into leadership, effective communication, and fulfillment from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, and it causes the reader to think about and consider many, many attributes of a leader.
We all want to have a good day. This book provides strategies…

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